Playing with Today

Charles Simic’s collection of autobiographical fragments, A Fly in the Soup (2000), concludes with one of his earliest memories. It is 1942 or 1943, so he is four or five years old. Despite the war, operas are still being performed in Belgrade, and his mother has taken him to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro:

It’s the first act, and Susanna and Figaro are in an eighteenth-century salon, pacing up and down…. At one point Susanna brushes against one of the candles, and the long scarf she is wearing over her shoulders catches fire. The audience gasps. She stops singing and stands clutching her head in terror while the flames get bigger and bigger. Figaro, without missing a beat, quickly snatches the scarf, throws it on the floor, and stamps on it like a Spanish dancer. All along he’s singing that beautiful music….

Simic’s poetry has always been fascinated by the borderline between art and violence. “So I sat between the word truth,” he writes in the very early “Pastoral” (1969),

And the word gallows
Took out my tin can
And spoon.

Reflecting on the opera singer’s presence of mind in the course of his conversation with Michael Hulse (the English poet and translator of W.G. Sebald), Simic marvels again at

the way he kept the comic spirit of the performance uninterrupted while the audience gasped in horror. Outside, the war was on. We were an occupied country. People were arrested, disappeared or were sent to camps. There were public executions. That’s how art exists in this world of ours—a clear head in the face of calamity.

Yet at the same time his poetry shows itself constantly aware of how its own energies and patterning are determined by the “calamity” from which it derives its origin. The locus classicus of this theme in Simic’s work is still his earliest expression of it, the final stanza of “Butcher Shop” of 1967:

There is a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean—a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.

There can be no complete description of the sources or evolution of any good poet’s “voice,” and poets themselves are rarely willing to reduce their alchimie du verbe to a scientific formula. Simic is particularly wary of imposing on his imagination, the voice at 3:00 AM, any kind of agenda. “The most beautiful riddle has no answer,” he has his muse figure say in his densest and most elaborate embodiment of the mysteries of the imagination, and his longest-ever poem, “White,” first issued in 1972, and then revised and republished in four different versions.

But Simic’s riddles, however unanswerable, tend to be ways of engaging, rather than avoiding, history; they seem driven primarily by the urge to present what he calls in a 1986 essay, “Poetry and History,” reprinted in his latest collection of prose pieces, The …

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